Prayer as the Fountain of Faith

Prayer is the latch that opens the window to God’s mysterious beauty and brings fresh air to our soul. Without the breath of prayer, faith suffocates. A daily practice of prayer stabilizes us against winds of deceit. Prayer liberates us from mere feelings, delivering us from the churning waters of today to the deep sea of faith and confidence in God. The storm surf of intense trials and emotions of the moment decrease, even disappear, when projected on the calm sea of faith.

When we pass through the door of our Christian faith, we enter the highest realm of our existence: spiritual life with the Triune God. Faith opens the eyes of the heart and the ears of the soul. Prayer helps us interpret what we see and hear in the light of the God’s wondrous love. Benedict XVI wrote: “Faith is foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus. . . . It is in this way that we learn to know him better, to love him, and to follow him more and more.” Prayer nurtures faith and deep faith reflects a profound respect and love for the truths of Jesus and his Church. Faith is the most beautiful gift from God, but it is also the most demanding.

Faith is always a gift that we are invited to open and embrace each day. Unfortunately, many people choose not to open this gift. Their greatest poverty is not knowing God. With the help of grace from the Holy Spirit, we must respond to this gift with every choice we make.

Faith is like a bird that sings in the dark because she knows the dawn is coming. However, at times faith is surrounded in a darkness that seems to have no daylight. Seasoned Christians pray in spite of their darkness. Holy wisdom tells us faith is there, even though it is not felt in the heart or perceived through the senses. John of the Cross advises: “Faith lies beyond all understanding, taste, feeling, and imagining that one has. However impressive may be one’s knowledge or feeling of God, that knowledge or feeling will have no resemblance to God and amounts to very little. To attain union with God, a person should neither advance by understanding, nor by support of one’s own experience, but by belief in God’s being.” Thérèse of Lisieux was in a severe dark night of faith during the last eighteen months of her short life. She felt cut off from God. However, she was determined to believe. She had the spiritual maturity to travel through her dark night with trust, hope and assiduous prayer. We can be angry with God, doubt his existence, or fear we no longer believe. At times, this is natural. It does not mean we have no faith. It means we have faith that transcends good feelings. Underneath the surface feelings and difficulties, we maintain our faith in God’s goodness, wisdom and love. Faith is believing that God remains with us through difficulties, even though he seems so distant.

Weak faith does not mean we do not believe. Thérèse gives us a boost: “Do not let your weakness make you unhappy. When, in the morning, we feel no courage or strength for the practice of virtue, it is really a grace: it is the time to ‘lay the ax to the root of the trees,’ (Matt. 3:10) relying upon Jesus alone. If we fall, an act of love will set all right, and Jesus smiles. He helps us without seeming to do so; and the tears which sinners cause him to shed are wiped away by our feeble love. Love can do all things.”

In a garden, a seed is like faith, buried, mysterious, but still a promise of life. That life is nourished by prayer. Like taking care of a garden, prayer requires time. Today, not having time to pray is probably the most common excuse for not praying, and it is as old as Methuselah. The truth is, there is always time for prayer. If we are too busy for prayer, we need to take a close look at the reasons why we are so busy, reprioritize them, and use discipline in maintaining what we truly value. By eliminating the frivolous, the negative, and the unnecessary, we can find time to pray. There is a wise saying, sometimes attributed to St. Francis de Sales: “Every one of us needs half an hour of prayer a day, except when we are busy — then we need an hour.”

Everyday Prayer

We should not have much concern about whether our prayer is satisfying or not. If we have a constant desire to experience good feelings or consolations in prayer, it can lead to using prayer as a self-centered activity. We come away from prayer more turned toward self than turned toward God. We should continue to pray regardless of distractions, pleasantries, emptiness, or insights. Consider the higher value of prayer. It helps us become the people we were meant to be in the eyes of God. If we forget ourselves by laying aside self-serving desires, we would be more able to turn our desires to the many aspects of God. By refraining from self-reflection, with the help of grace, we gain the ability to rise above ourselves. Forgetting ourselves directs us to wanting to do what God wants from us more intensely. Changing from “Here I am and this is what I want” to “There is God in his incomparable grandeur” opens our heart to beauty in all kinds of prayer. In prayer we can lose ourselves in God, who is so much greater than our limited selves. Teresa of Avila reminds us: “To continue in prayer without any consolation is not a waste of time, but a time of much profit for then we labor only for the glory of God.”

Prayer reminds us that each one of us is a sinner. We so easily misuse, reject, misinterpret, or abuse the beauty of God’s love and our love for each other. A daily prayer of contrition for our sins opens us to the beauty of God’s mercy, which is more than we could ever imagine.

Even if we pray with no apparent reward or response, we still know that we are praying. We pray after the excitement has gone. Yes, we are grateful when we experience spiritual delights. But, we are also grateful when we experience spiritual dryness. If we pray and nothing seems to be happening, it may encourage us to put more faith into the ordinary, seemingly insignificant circumstances of the day. The quality of our prayer is our life outside of prayer. Attentiveness in prayer leads to conscientiousness in daily tasks. We pay loving attention to the mundane details that mark the ordinary days. They are as important as any great achievements we might accomplish.

Prayer as a Spiritual Softener

Prayer opens our hearts not only to God, but also to other people. If our hearts have grown hardened or closed, prayer prompts them to open in love. An eight-year-old girl once defined a grudge as holding all the madness inside. Prayer mellows us. It lays bare the foolishness of holding a grudge. Grudges weigh us down because they can block our forgiving others and even stimulate an appetite for revenge. Grudges encourage negativity and can easily lead to hurtful anger. Even though we might think we have some control over the person with whom we have a grudge by continuing to cling to our anger at him or her, we do not. He or she could have easily forgotten whatever caused the anger. People of prayer do not hold grudges. A grudge only tarnishes a trusting faith and adds rubbish to a clear stream of prayer.

Prayer improves our perceptions of other people. We give them the benefit of the doubt rather than blaming them. Finding fault and being critical can evolve into giving compliments and being affirmative. We aim for a positive mindset. Being positive does not mean being naïve. It means acknowledging what is wrong and negative in society but focusing on what is right and good. It is easy to find fault with anything, but if we believe God made everything that is good, we strive to look for that good. The Bible tells us: “All things work together for good to them that love God” (Rom 8:28).

A way to grow in prayer is by cultivating an awareness of God’s presence within ourselves and in each person around us. This is not easy, especially when we are distressed or troubled. During these times, we tend to dwell more on pessimistic factors rather than on how God is working within the situation. If we strive in prayer to refocus our perception of a current troubling situation, we somehow see God quietly moving in it.

Letting go of a hurtful situation is not easy, but it is possible. We could take a few days off from thinking about it, reflect on what is true, noble, and honorable during that time, and return to the situation with fresh insights. We must pray, trust in God and let him teach us through mentors, wise research, and prayer. He is present to us in very little things we can easily miss and speaks to us in that still, small voice we can easily fail to hear. He is nearer to us than we think.

Our hearts may also need to be opened not only to others but to ourselves. If we feel dismal about ourselves for a significant length of time, we might look into a mirror and say aloud until we believe it: “I have worth and value.” Then polish that mirror and begin to recognize all those things that indicate why we are worthwhile. We can prayerfully record our small and large accomplishments each day. The small things are the most important. We can read quotes or stories that give us strength. Our faith and our prayer depend on a positive view of our self as a dear child of God. For all of God’s children Augustine, a doctor of the Church, wrote: “In this life, virtue consists of loving what must be loved. Knowing how to choose it is prudence, not letting oneself be distracted by seductive powers is temperance, not letting oneself be led astray by pride is justice.”

Beyond the Explainable

Another challenge of prayer is that it requires us to reach for what is beyond our senses. If we could prove the existence and nature of God beyond the shadow of doubt, our faith would be no more than a scientific explanation. There is a difference between faith and certainty. Faith is a gift we cannot see, hear, or touch. “Faith declares what the senses do not see, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them, not contrary to them.” (Blaise Pascal) Every prayer we say is an act of faith.

Over a hundred years ago, a university student was walking through a quiet park. He saw an elderly man sitting on a bench alone and sat down next to him. The elderly man who was praying the rosary, moving the beads with his fingers. “Sir, do you still believe in such outdated things?” asked the student of the old man. “Yes, I do. Do you not?” asked the man. The student burst out laughing and said, “I do not believe in such silly things. Take my advice. Throw the rosary away and learn what science has to say.” “Science? I do not understand this science. Perhaps you can explain it to me.” The student saw that the man was deeply moved. To avoid hurting this man’s feelings, he said: “Please give me your address and I will send you some literature.” The man fumbled in the inside pocket of his coat and gave the student his business card. On glancing at the card, the student bowed his head and became silent. On the card he read: Louis Pasteur, Director of the Institute of Scientific Research, Paris.

The value of prayer is less in what it gives us, and more in what it makes us. It helps us to become the kind of persons we were meant to be by changing us for the better according to God’s desires for us. Prayer is the best way of growing as authentic people of God and deepening our friendship with God. Sitting still and quiet, and talking and listening to God as to a dear friend, is a beautiful way to pray and keeps us moving ahead on the spiritual road. A deep love for God helps us to realize that all is grace and all is gift. Sometimes we understand the whys of God’s will; most times, we do not. God’s mills grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine. Prayer not only nourishes our soul, but also draws us closer to Jesus. If we linger in love with the Lord, it is easier to let ourselves be loved by him. As a lay member of the Dominican Order put it:

Prayer is the tide which returns,

Running full and free with God,

To flow out into our days,

Taking us through the rich park lands of Summer,

Or the desolate forlorn terrain of Winter,

Or the pleasant diversities of Spring and Autumn.

Prayer is the dream,

We dream along with God,

As locked in the eternal rhythm,

We move sweetly into love,

The love for which all has well been lost

And won, as we enter Paradise at last.

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS, OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and a registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the following books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today's Church, Living Through Cancer: A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns, and Everyday Holiness: A Guide to Living Here and Getting to Eternity. Her latest book, Courage Through Chronic Disease, was published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center. Her articles have been in Spirituality, Mount Carmel, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Review for Religious, Spiritual Life, Human Development, and other Catholic journals. Carolyn's reflections can be found online at contemplativechristianityorg.wordpress.com.

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